In late July, life in El Salvador came to an abrupt stop.
For several days at the end of the month a bus “strike” called by the country’s gangs (or maras) effectively shut down the nation’s transportation system. Countless numbers of people were stranded. Businesses and schools were forced to close. Buses were torched, drivers caught ignoring the strike were murdered, and El Salvador’s economy took a sizable hit. Fear and revulsion, already heightened by spiking levels of violence, continued to grow.
The point of the strike was clear enough. In less than a week, the gangs dramatically demonstrated their ability to intimidate an entire country into complying with their demands. More than this, though, the strike highlighted the gangs’ capacity for controlling not just people, but markets as well. Above all, though, at a moment when the country is being torn apart by violence, and the general public is questioning their government’s capacity for effective rule, the bus strike revealed the state to be helpless and slow to respond in a crisis.
As El Salvador slips further into a state of emergency, anti-government protests have been gaining momentum in neighboring Guatemala and Honduras. There, massive demonstrations against government corruption and misrule have shaken the foundations of political order. The recent arrests and resignations of government officials in response have even led some observers to suggest that the protests may represent the start of a “Central America Spring.” Be that as it may, a “Salvadoran Spring” will almost certainly not follow.
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That Salvadorans haven’t taken to the streets in protest speaks volumes about the depth of perceived insecurity they experience in the face of gang power. High levels of violence are clearly a deterrent to political action. While activists have historically been the target of assassination and intimidation in El Salvador, the astonishing deterioration of public security has made carrying out even the mundane activities of daily life — to say nothing of organizing protests — a dangerous proposition.
It also reveals a sense of hopelessness that has overtaken the general population. After 20 years of failed, hardline conservative rule under the ARENA party following El Salvador’s civil war, there was real hope that the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) would steer the country in a new direction when it took the presidency in 2009. Six years later, however, the general mood seems to be disappointment, and the realization that both of the country’s political parties are unable, or unwilling, to safeguard Salvadoran society.
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To be sure, the FMLN’s record has been mixed. There is a lot to be said, on the one hand, for government claims that El Salvador has experienced meaningful social progress since the FMLN came to power. Particularly in the areas of education and public health, the quality of life experienced by Salvadorans has modestly increased. General schooling is improved and literacy rates have climbed. Access to quality medical care has expanded, and the government has looked to provide medical attention to the poorest and uninsured citizens across the country.
At the same time, the government has stumbled on other key issues. The economy remains sluggish despite government revitalization efforts. Women are continually subject to assault — legally and physically — while violence against gay and transgender people runs rampant. Despite its leftist credentials, the FMLN has also appeared gun-shy in confronting the country’s capitalist elite and generally speaking, the party has bungled its response to the growing threat of Central America’s gangs.
Popular disillusionment with the FMLN was given expression in El Salvador’s 2014 general election. The incumbent FMLN was widely predicted to sweep to victory against a limp conservative opposition. As polls closed, however, it became apparent that the FMLN’s presidential candidate, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, would merely squeak to victory. In the event, Sanchez Ceren would only secure a razor-thin majority of just a few thousand votes. His narrow win has not been without consequence.
Despite progressive policies on a number of fronts, the Sanchez Ceren regime has adopted an uncompromising approach to the gangs. In stark contrast to his FMLN predecessor, Mauricio Funes, Sanchez Ceren has reverted to a position that uncomfortably resembles the “strong hand” policies of the ARENA years. The government has made it clear that it will seek to arrest, imprison, or kill members of El Salvador’s three main gangs, and has brought the full force of state military power to the endeavor.
Sanchez Ceren’s hardline on the gangs has been an unmitigated disaster. Since a truce between the gangs in 2012 fell apart, murder rates have spiked to appalling levels. Over 3,000 people have been killed this year alone. By mid-August, roughly 40 people were being murdered a day, and the gangs have shown no intention of slowing down. Alarmingly, the recent bus strike — though not nearly as violent — suggests that murder is not the only tool the gangs can wield to reduce the government’s capacity for effective governance.
Even as it struggled to respond to the strike, the government insinuated that the shutdown was part of a wider conservative destabilization effort aimed at overthrowing the ruling regime. In a public statement, the FMLN argued that El Salvador was subject to “an aggressive campaign by the oligarchic right-wing, represented politically by the ARENA party and disguised as small, supposed civil society groups,” to undermine “the work of the government that benefits the people.”
The suggestion of complicity between ARENA and the gangs has trouble holding up under scrutiny. For one thing, there is little evidence of any direct relationships with the gangs and either of the political parties. For another, it makes no sense. The bus strike offered Sanchez Ceren a high-profile opportunity to publicly reaffirm his commitment to vanquish gang power from the country, and another excuse to ramp up military action against the gangs.
Ironically, the policy that has been his greatest failure — fighting the maras — is also the one in which Sanchez Ceren enjoys the greatest support. The people may be divided in their political affiliations, but are largely unified in their hatred and fear of the gangs. Applying a “strong hand” may not work — indeed, they may make things worse — but militarized, law-and-order approaches remain politically popular with the public. For this reason, the greatest chance for peace may be impossible.
Negotiations with the maras, while unpalatable, offer El Salvador the best hope for stability. The previous truce, though not without its problems, demonstrated that political solutions to social violence in El Salvador are in the interests of the gangs, just as they should be for the government. The truce also allowed relief for a beleaguered population, which is no small thing. The gangs have made clear their desire to talk, and are using violence to pressure the government to the table. Thus far Sanchez Ceren has rebuffed their overtures.
In the meantime, the government has apparently committed to a war of attrition with the gangs. As the bus strike demonstrates, however, it is not equipped to win. With neither side exhibiting any real advantage, and both willing to escalate the conflict further, the violence ravaging El Salvador will continue to gain momentum. Negotiations offer a way out. The path being followed at the moment guarantees only murder and death.
Right now, there is no end in sight.
Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes magazine.